Peru’s President-elect Alan Garcia says voters have sent a clear message to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez: Keep out.
But with the Venezuelan president’s ally Ollanta Humala controlling much of Peru’s Congress, Chavez’s anti-American brand of politics may be difficult to ignore.
A majority of Peru’s voters effectively anointed a regional rival to Chavez by returning Garcia, 57, to the presidency. Garcia himself drove home that point in his rousing victory speech when he denounced the growing influence of oil-rich Venezuela in Latin America.
“Our homeland’s independent destiny was at stake here, threatened by total domination and imperialism,” Garcia told supporters on Sunday night. “Imperialism does not come only from great powers but also from nearby domination, by those who seek to subordinate and steer us because they have wealth.”
A moderate leftist who left his first term as president in disgrace 16 years ago, Garcia held an insurmountable lead of 53.1% against 46.9% for Humala with 93% of the vote counted, Peru’s national electoral authority said yesterday.
The country’s financial markets rallied yesterday morning, with the Peruvian stock market’s broad general index surging on the election news before cooling off in the afternoon to close up about 0.6%.
“Garcia’s victory eliminates a key link in the Andean chain that Hugo Chavez is forging,” Peruvian political analyst Mirko Lauer said.
But halting a Chavez-fuelled domino effect – the political mobilisation of Latin America’s traditionally downtrodden – may be easier said than done.
Many Peruvians saw Humala, who once led a military uprising as an army lieutenant colonel, as unpredictable and dangerous to democracy. They were apparently wary of electing another loyal ally of Chavez, who already has extended his influence to Bolivia, where the Aymara Indian Evo Morales was elected president in December.
Like Morales, Humala had pledged to punish a political class widely perceived as corrupt and redistribute wealth to his country’s poor Indian and mestizo majority.
But Humala’s message resonated among many other Peruvians – and that could pose a major obstacle to Garcia’s presidency.
Humala’s party won the largest number of seats in Congress in April 9 elections, evidence that Chavez’s anti-American agenda remains influential in Peru. He won in 14 of Peru’s 24 states on Sunday, giving him a power base in the country’s poorest regions that could handcuff Garcia initiatives.
“Ollanta Humala will continue to be a formidable opponent for Garcia,” Lauer said.
Humala (aged 43) has vowed not to let his election loss halt his “grand transformation” of the country.
“We have managed to awaken the Peruvian people’s awareness,” he told supporters at his campaign headquarters. “In only one year we have constructed a movement that changed the political map of the country and created a new political agenda that gives priority to the real problems of most Peruvian families.”
Chavez may continue to try to influence events in Peru, said former US Ambassador to Peru Dennis Jett, who directs the University of Florida’s Latin America studies programme.
“Chavez has no constraints – he has the money, he has the ambition,” Jett said.
“And if imitation is the highest form of flattery, if you can create imitators, then you flatter yourself,” Jet added. “That is, I think, what he’s trying to do: demonstrate his model works not only in Venezuela, but also in Bolivia and, by extension, in Peru and other places.”
Sunday’s runoff vote in South America’s third-largest country comes amid a contest for ideological pre-eminence in Latin America – between moderate-left, market-friendly leaders such as those in Brazil and Chile, and anti-American, populist leftists with authoritarian tendencies such as Venezuela's and Bolivia’s.
The leftward trend largely grew out of disenchantment with free-market capitalism, which mostly failed to reduce poverty in the region.
Colombia’s re-election of President Alvaro Uribe in late May was a big win for conservatism, while Mexican leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is running neck-and-neck with conservative Felipe Calderon.
Chavez thrust himself into the Peru race by enthusiastically endorsing Humala and trading insults with Garcia, calling him “a thief for real, a demagogue, a liar”. Garcia adroitly turned the race into a referendum on the Chavez factor, depicting Humala as an aspiring authoritarian Chavez copycat.
Speaking on Sunday night, Garcia said Chavez “should understand that Peru has told him no to international interference”.
Peru’s outgoing president, Alejandro Toledo, also rallied against the Venezuelan strongman. His government sought hemispheric support yesterday for a formal complaint against Chavez’s “meddling” in the election during a meeting of Organisations of American States foreign ministers in the Dominican Republic.
Articulate, charismatic and strong-willed, Garcia seemed to be looking forward to taking on Chavez in the region’s political arena.
“In Latin America, there was no leader who was confronting Hugo Chavez,” Jorge del Castillo, secretary-general of Garcia’s Aprista Party, said Monday. ”Now there is one.”